August 29 – The Passion of St. John the Baptist

August 27, 2015

Part of the Baptist’s ministry was exercised in Perea: Ennon, another scene of his labours, was within the borders of Galilee; both Perea and Galilee made up the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. This prince, a son worthy of his father Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (son of the younger Mariamne), and induced her to come on to Galilee. When and where the Precursor met Herod, we are not told, but from the synoptic Gospels we learn that John dared to rebuke the tetrarch for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery. Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome reprover to go unpunished: he “sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison”. Josephus tell us quite another story, containing perhaps also an element of truth. “As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher. . .and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus” (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2). Whatever may have been the chief motive of the tetrarch’s policy, it is certain that Herodias nourished a bitter hatred against John: “She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death” (Mark, vi, 19). Although Herod first shared her desire, yet “he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet” (Matt., xiv, 5). After some time this resentment on Herod’s part seems to have abated, for, according to Mark, vi, 19,20, he heard John willingly and did many things at his suggestion.

The Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, on the site where his birth.Photo by v.

John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John’s faith wavered in the least. Some of his disciples, however, would not be convinced by his words that Jesus was the Messias. Accordingly, he sent them to Jesus, bidding them say: “John the Baptist hath sent us to thee, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? (And in that same hour, he cured many of their [the people’s] diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits; and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have hard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me” (Luke, vii, 20-23; Matt., xi, 3-6).

The Beheading of St John the Baptist, painted by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

How this interview affected John’s disciples, we do not know; but we do know the encomium it occasioned of John from the lips of Jesus: “And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John. What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” All knew full well why John was in prison, and that in his captivity he was more than ever the undaunted champion of truth and virtue.-“But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel, and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke, vii, 24-28). And continuing, Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of the world in its opinions both of himself and his precursor: “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say: He hath a devil. The Son of man is coming eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke, vii, 33-35).

Salome with the head of St John the Baptist, painting by Guido Reni.St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus; but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated: she watched her chance. It came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the “princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias [Josephus gives her name: Salome] had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. . .Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, what shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: but sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother” (Mark, vi, 21-28). Thus was done to death the greatest “amongst them that are born of women”, the prize awarded to a dancing girl, the toll exacted for an oath rashly taken and criminally kept (St. Augustine). At such an unjustifiable execution even the Jews were shocked, and they attributed to Divine vengeance the defeat Herod sustained afterwards at the hands of Aretas, his rightful father-in-law (Joseph., loc. cit.). John’s disciples, hearing of his death, “came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark, vi, 29), “and came and told Jesus” (Matt., xiv, 12).

The lasting impression made by the Precursor upon those who had come within his influence cannot be better illustrated than by mentioned the awe which seize upon Herod when he heard of the wonders wrought by Jesus who, in his mind, was not other than John the Baptist come to life (Matt., xiv, 1, 2, etc.).

CHARLES L. SOUVAY (Catholic Encyclopedia)

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